Saturday, May 2, 2015

The "Four-Hymn Sandwich" Approach to Mass

Have you ever had the opportunity to attend Mass in the Ordinary Form where the liturgical music first and foremost followed the first directives in the GIRM?  In other words, have you ever been to Mass where plainchant (in Latin and/or English) was generously employed, the Propers were sung, the priest would chant most of his parts so the people could also enter into the dialogue with sung responses and if, IF there was time, a small, highly competent schola would sing a motet or two?  If you have, did you find that there was an ethereal quality to the liturgy that directed all of your attention to what was going on at the altar in the sanctuary?  Did it imbue you with a sense of the other-wordly, the supernatural, the realm of angels, heaven itself?  Did it raise your mind and heart to things of God such that you left Mass with a renewed energy to bring Christ to the world?

No?  Really?

I feel sorry for you.

I assume, then, that you have experienced what most American Catholics do...the "standard" (or shall I say "sub-standard" if I want to be a bit uncharitable and refer to the quality of the music) liturgy where a large, mostly untrained choir (led by a cantor at a separate microphone) sings (or in some cases, belts) a "four-hymn sandwich" in between all those speaking parts.  At these liturgies, the congregation is asked and sometimes cajoled into joining in singing such and such which is number blah, blah, blah in the disposable hymnal (unless the parish is lucky enough to have permanent hymnals that will be replaced every five years as to take advantage of all the wonderful and new songs just published...ooh, be still my excited heart!).  At these parishes there are people employed as directors of music (and liturgy in many cases) who have NO idea what a Proper, Ordinary, Graduale, are and most likely have, at the very minimum, NEVER EVEN READ the General Instructions to the Roman Missal which enlightens us to what we should be doing at Mass.  I'll admit, you may have actually sung some beautiful songs that have rich harmonies, deep theology in the lyric, and fairly easy to sing melodies.  But, more than likely, the music you sing at Mass was written AFTER 1980.  Oh, snap...did you catch that?  I said "the music you sing AT Mass"?

The last time I checked, and I'm pretty sure that this is still the case, we aren't just hypothetically, in a perfect world, to just sing music at Mass as the primary form of worship.  Liturgy is a public work of the people to corporately and individually worship our Lord.  Liturgical music, as simply one piece of the worship experience, should actually do something other than just give us something to do.  It's supposed to allow us to fully enter into the prayer by either accompanying a liturgical action (the Introit aka "The Entrance Hymn", the Communion Proper otherwise known as the "Communion Song", etc.) or by being the liturgical action itself (the Eucharistic acclamations, the Responsorial Psalm).  When the powers that be stop trying to control the congregation's level of participation by forcing them to make and eat the stacked, plain (unless there's mustard) four-ham...uh...I mean the four-hymn sandwich, and give them the beautiful opportunity to express their prayer in song in the wise way mother Church has devised (through the sung Propers and Ordinaries and beautiful hymns), we will see a rise in holiness in the congregants.  I mean, what a better way to see what "active participation" looks like than to elevate the prayer and worship experience to a point where souls, beautified by the work, receive Christ in the Word and Eucharist and then take Him outside of the church building and bring Him to the rest of the world.  (Oh, and by the way, for whatever reason, music holds an amazing power over penetrates the body and goes straight to the liturgical musicians an even greater responsibility to make sure that the music that is sung at Mass is, as St. Pius X commanded, holy, universal and true art.  If music has the ability to teach us the Faith even if we don't recognize that we are being educated then it is absolutely paramount that we follow the magisterial directive that the liturgical music be holy, universal and true art).

I believe that if liturgical musicians just eliminate the "four-hymn-sandwich" approach to planning music for Mass and instead give what the Magisterium recommends a chance (Propers, Ordinaries, hymns that are holy, universal and true art), we actually might see a shift in how we pray and live as a Catholic people.  Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi, after all.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Hmmm...the student body isn't singing at Mass???? Gee, I wonder why?

I attended the student Mass at my son's high school today.  It was the last Mass of the school year (save the baccalaureate Mass the day before graduation) and the seniors were the guests of honor (besides Jesus, of course).  Not expecting much (I have, after all, attended a few of these student Masses over the last four years and have not been impressed), I was utterly dismayed at the lack of participation in the ritual.  It was as if the students were just there to witness a really dull presentation rather than fully enter in to the beautiful mystery being unfolded before their very eyes.  It's not like it was all bad...the priest's homily was SUPERB...but for all its clarity and wonderfulness, Father's message was lost in the shuffle of the mediocre music and less than half-hearted worship.  Oh, and don't even get me started about the student who read the verses to the psalm in such a way to make the students laugh at the ridiculousness of his dramatic reading, ON PURPOSE!!!  However, the ultimate disappointment came right after Mass when the campus minister got up to speak to the student body and actually admonished them with a not-so-subtle dig on the way they don't sing at Mass.  Now, don't get me wrong.  She had a point.  The students looked bored because they WERE bored (and perhaps a little too imbued with that "I'm too cool to go along" attitude that in fact makes themselves very boring, indeed).  BUT...the lack of singing by the students was NOT due to their lack of  interest, aptitude, or [insert other appropriate noun here].  Uh...NEWSFLASH:   Mass planners (the campus minister, the Pastoral Arts teacher and the music director) take note...the students don't sing because they can't and/or they won't.  The music selections, meant for a solo recording artist, have too wide of a range, difficult rhythms, disjunct melodies that are hard to follow, harmonies and chord progressions that make every song sound the same.  The singers, all too many of them with inflated egos, are NOT good at what they do.  I understand that you have to take everybody in the Pastoral Arts class, but NOT EVERYONE SHOULD BE IN THE CHOIR.  If I've learned anything over the years, it's that people want to join in singing when the music is pleasing to the ear.  If you have too many choir members belting out of tune pitches over a sound system set so high as to deafen the congregation from hearing their own voice, guess what?  Oh yeah, that's r...i...g..h...t...  THE PEOPLE WILL NOT SING!!!  If you choose music that is too difficult to quickly pick up (especially if you are not teaching them the songs before hand), guess what?  Oh yeah, that's r...i...g...h...t...  THE PEOPLE WILL NOT SING!!!  If you pick out songs based on what you believe the teens will think is cool and the lyrics of those songs only speak to namby-pamby plain-jane vanilla squishy "me and Jesus" moments without having a strong theology firmly rooted in scripture and Tradtion, the teens will think the song is stupid and guess what?  Oh yeah, that's r...i...g...h...t...  THE PEOPLE WILL NOT SING!!!

And, let's just for a moment, take a look at what participation really looks like at Mass.  Some liturgists will foam at the mouth when they explain that unless someone is actively singing EVERY. SINGLE. SONG. there lacks "active" participation among the members of the congregation.  In reality, the participation should be measured not by some external governing board but by the individual themselves.  I mean, how do we ever know if someone is prayerfully participating on the INSIDE?  We can't know...and it really is none of our business what a person's relationship with Jesus is in any given moment during the Mass.  Yet, if we need to look to some external metric, then perhaps we can judge it by how well the congregation is entering into the responses and acclamations. If liturgy is truly the work of the people, then what's most important is for the congregants to sing, say, and pose in those moments where our participation CONSTITUTES THE LITURGICAL ACTION ITSELF (responding the the psalm, acclaiming our faith during the reponses to the Eucharistic dialogue, etc.).  Simply singing one of the songs in the "four-hymn sandwich" only ACCOMPANIES some sort of liturgical action and therefore is not as important as the liturgical action itself (and why we're not singing the Propers from the Graduale as called for as the primary choice in liturgical music at Mass is beyond me...but I digress; that's an argument for another time). 

If you (and by you, I mean well-intentioned but poorly formed campus ministers and music directors) want the student body to participate, first, analyze your own expectations of what "participation" looks like.  Second, become better catechized yourself...this way you can effectively impart to your students what proper reverence and adoration in the liturgy actually is and inform them of their important role in it so they can better (and more naturally) enter into the full worship of the Most High, the Lord, Jesus Christ.  

(Oh, as a side note, please, please, PRETTY PLEASE, tell the girls, especially those who are liturgical ministers at Mass, to dress appropriately.  It really is not nice to make parents who are visiting spend all that time worried like mother hens that any wrong move by any number of girls will result in a tragically embarrassing wardrobe malfunction.  Thank you.)